Artist Masterclass: Breakthroughs

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Artist Masterclass is a series of conversations between myself and visual artist Sara Bloem.

SB: I think I made a breakthrough too this week, but I want to run it by you. After the last time we talked, I was thinking about how to bring this drawing series to the next level. I felt happy with the compositions overall, but didn’t feel like I was transforming the source (the reference photographs of the models) that much. At the same time, I’ve been messing around in a 3-D modeling program called Blender, mostly for my job. So it struck me that I could model the poses and then apply that back into the pieces. I’ve wanted to simplify the forms, but I didn’t want to do that by just simplifying them into cartoons the way I usually would. I think modeling them forces me out of my comfort zone and gives me a better reference at the end.

CL: Absolutely, the 3-D modeling can provide a solid foundation for the image.

SB: At the same time though, I don’t want to just be procrastinating on making these drawings, so that’s what I wanted to run by you.

CL: I wouldn’t see this as procrastination; it sounds like the modeling will be an integral part of your process. I think you’re just surprising yourself at how much can go into a project before you even get to the final pieces. I find that I spend at least 75% of my time on preliminary work.
So much so that by the time I’m ready to create the final pieces it actually doesn’t take that long.
At that point I can just crank out the final pieces because I have already dealt with all of the potential problems. If the work in Blender is reinforcing the concept for you, and will inform the work in the final pieces then it is absolutely worth every minute. I also think the work in Blender sounds like it will be another stage of transformation for the images, manipulating them even further, getting them farther away from the original reference photographs.

SB: Part of the project is about how histories are reinterpreted by different peoples and cultures, so I love the transforming and retransforming of the forms. It’s also funny because by now I’m somewhat familiar with your process, and I know for most of your series you go back and forth between sculpting and drawing, and I always thought, “Oh, that’s nice”, but I never really got it. It also makes the work so much more yours: you’re taking the photographs yourself, so that’s taking ownership, but then you take it another step by sculpting it. The reference becomes more and more personal, more yours. The whole “playing God” thing. Well, now I’m thinking, “Clara’s known all along!”

CL: I had a former student who once told a student in my class, “Just remember, Clara is ALWAYS right.”

SB: That class constantly yields more wisdom over time.

CL: Well, I find that when you get advice, in the moment, it’s hard to truly understand it. I remember having moments after art school, and having these “aha” moments where I was like “OH! THAT’S what that teacher meant!” It really takes time for advice to simmer and sink in all the way.

SB: Yeah, you have to let it percolate. I also had a question about your work this week, actually. So this series is a progression, from a dark, writhing mass to a strong woman who overcomes it. If I recall correctly, most of your other series weren’t so strongly designed to show an evolution. They’re a set, but not a really obvious narrative per se. How do you feel about that? Are you changing your approach because this series is more strongly narrative?

CL: Well, I definitely have to think about the arc of the pieces, and how they relate to each other.
I also think that the individual works will rely on the others to be effective, whereas I think in the past my other pieces could stand alone, so that’s a big change. Actually, I think the biggest change of all is that this project offers a sense of optimism and hope at the end. These are two qualities that I haven’t ever dealt with before. I think I will have the toughest time with these themes, because they’re hard to do without being really cheesy. I mean, how do you go from Hell to strength and survival? That’s a pretty dramatic transformation, which is what I guess will keep things interesting.

SB: This might be a little premature to ask, but how are you thinking about showing that narrative arc? As in, through mark making, or the posing of the figure, or interactions between the main figure and the other figures present in the piece…? It seems to me like this is a pretty bold departure from your previous work, so I can’t help but be curious.

CL: I think the best way I can describe it is that the first image will be very opaque and fleshy with writhing figures that will gradually visually dissipate and become more transparent. At the same time you’ll start to see the standing female figure emerge slowly out of those writhing figures until the standing female figure is alone, and rendered hyper realistically. I think mark making will play a major role as well, I’m hoping to get really abstract and gestural with the writhing figures. I’ve just started the sketching process, so we’ll see how that goes, its possible I could drop that idea and do something completely different, but that was my first instinct. I’ve been looking a lot at Rodin’s Gates of Hell.

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Rodin, The Gates of Hell

SB: I feel like this kind of goes back to the “What would a Clara Lieu/Hieronymous Bosch look like?” conversation we were having a few weeks ago.

CL: I think it’s finally going to come to fruition!

SB: Well nice, it sounds like a specific idea that has a lot of room to have fun. I’m sure it’ll evolve, but I can hear your excitement about it!

CL: I feel like both the idea and the visuals are very clear right now, a feeling I haven’t had in over two months! It’s so hard to be patient when you’re an artist. I also feel like with technology and everything everyone wants instant satisfaction all the time with everything now. It’s hard to be patient and to have faith in yourself that thing will work out.

SB: I think it’s definitely hard to feel okay about giving ideas the time they need. I always feel like I should have had the winning idea like, yesterday.

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